The enormous growth of social media services, with Facebook now over 175 million users and Twitter having a yearly growth rate of 1382%, validates the need for companies to start using these social platforms to engage with customers. And with more people joining these platforms, the amount of content created and shared also increases, with users becoming more sensitive on the way they build their personal network.
At first, users are driven to sign up by curiosity or bombarded by constant friend requests, joining their close circle of contacts. The trouble is that it doesn’t stops here. You then become a fan of your favorite author, start following you favorite basketball player on Twitter or discover that old colleague from trainee years.
The social network, once reserved to our closest friends, is now growing beyond any reasonable Dunbar number and providing much more value that keeping us connected and building group stability.
Friending is a social verb
We can’t deny it: we love groups. We need to belong to a social circle. Bigger online social circles usually imply an increasing complexity of filters and preferences necessary to make it manageable, with revised criteria for friending people. As personal networks grow in size and influence, we also get to the see how artificial barriers to entry are built, with cultural groups creating psychological boundaries (from celebrities to intellectual prejudice).
From Coleman’s concept of network closure as social capital to today’s social media rise, we’ve kept the need to include in our social graphs both weak ties and strong ties. What changed was the way both geographical and social circles were affected by the Internet. Twitter, for instance, favors an asymmetric behavior regarding groups, by not requiring two-way acceptance to get updates. Facebook, on the other hand is focused on a reciprocal relationship that implies social approval.
The nature of these social network relationships also changes according to the stage of a person’s life, with younger demographics having fewer and closer friend evolving to adult life with connections more essential to structural sustainability and innovation. Linkedin, a professional social network, is based on more private conversations and encourages these weak ties, quite valued on today’s economic uncertainty.
In most of these online social networks, users put a great deal of effort to perfect their profile, showing that it goes beyond fine tuning preferences, it’s also a public expression of the self. At social music service Last.fm, your playlist is a pretty good psychographic profile of who you are. Or at least, how you want to be seen by others.
But all these profiles, filters and preferences, where users spend hours so they can have a better experience, are mostly useless. Useless in the sense you can’t easily get this data out of centric platforms.
These platforms have been evolving slowly, from pre-api times were each user had to login on services and invite all his relevant social circle to today’s APIs with password anti-patterns and OAuth Support.
If Facebook started providing closed filtering and grouping mechanisms, Google has pushed even further by releasing Portable Contacts. The open standard makes it easier to access your social circle information in a safe way, using existing standards and libraries (OpenSocial, OAuth, vCard).
Users can port in their existing network of friends and see who they know is already using a site. It goes beyond the Facebook feature of optional grouping when adding a friend, by enabling 4 system groups for each user, accessible by service providers. Any user can manually add contacts to the Coworkers, Family, and Friends groups; the My Contacts group contains contacts added to contact groups by the user.
What’s your mom have to do with this? Well, let’s put it bluntly: most of us don’t want to share some of our social network updates with our mom, the same way most of us as teenagers didn’t want her to know who we started dating. Or as Clay Shirky mentioned last year at Web2.0 Expo: “What filter just broke ?” As experience architects, we should be thinking on providing context to social circles and encourage the integration of third-party applications that respect this behavior.
Your mom probably doesn’t have a clue what Microformats or Data Portability is, but she still would love to have a future where she could setup a TV with her media preferences, thanks to a simple Facebook Connect on a Boxee device. That way, you don’t need to worry that she messes your remote when staying for the weekend.
With each consumer defining proper contexts, with new tools and better ways to manage their portable profiles, brands and services that encourage this open portability will get to build better behavioral approaches to this ubiquitous vision. The structural holes that will be detected once the data starts flowing will provide immense growth opportunities and gains in productivity, as each person starts connecting their networks with the appropriate context.
You can also Discuss on the Facebook Page. (See what i mean: the irony of writing this post ad inviting people to closed conversations)